In this edition of the Ships and Oil Newsletter an item about the loss of the El Faro, false news – cyber attacks at sea, a life capsule, a bit of a discussion about PPE and a Christmas experience.


This month the American National Transport Safety Board issued the findings of their investigation into the loss of the El Faro, which sank in a hurricane in 2015. The full report will be issued sometime in January – they say. The findings found much wrong in the way the master had operated the ship, principally his failure to consult with his officers in the middle of the night during the hours before the ship was lost. But there was a lot more wrong. One of the principle findings was that the company had failed to offer any guidance as to how to address the problems of transiting areas of the Atlantic during the hurricane season, surely a requirement of the ISM Code one would think. It was not after all an occasional area where they operated, the company provided a liner service between the US east coast and Puerto Rico. People have said that it was an unusual coincidence of failing which caused the tragedy, but it always is. We who have been in the risk business usually try to identify the possible failings and then find a means of preventing them. If we can cover one thing, reduce the risk in one area, it might be enough. I was struck by the recommendation in the findings that those on board ship should know what the operating angle of the engines could be. This was because the ship had been given a list by the force of the wind, and this had eventually prevented the lubrication of the engine and so it had ground to a halt. You would think that knowing the maximum operating angle of the engines would be essential, but it is mostly a mystery maybe because it is assumed that the angle will be constantly changing even if it is sometimes greater than the machinery can tolerate. In my time writing safety cases, in which we had to include the maximum operating angle of the engines, we often needed to take the actual number off the engines and submit them to the manufacturers to find out the maximum operating angles were.   


A blogger on Splash 24/7 recently highlighted some fake news regarding cyber attacks on ships which suggested that the navigation of a container ship had been taken over for several hours. I googled and found that the BBC had produced a long article about cyber attacks on ships, which included the anecdotal information that off South Korea a lack of GPS had forced many ships to return to port. If we just try to think about that statement alone we would have to ask how they had managed to get back to port if they were that reliant on GPS. But worse than this, it appears that the article about the container ship had been included in Safety at Sea International, and the blogger suggested that surely this was a symptom of the modern tendency to grab any journalist and put them in charge, whether they have the specialist training or not. Quite often these editors have the misfortune to be overseeing the content of a number of magazines, much of which will consist of nothing more than press releases pushed at them by enthusiastic manufacturers or consultancy services. We can assume then that the cyber attack news had been prompted by a security services, or anti-hacker press release. Admittedly many ships have electronic systems, some of which might be vulnerable  and if GPS systems are hacked then the change in position, or lack of one, should be immediately evident. If the electronic chart system is hacked – would this be possible? – then it would be necessary to revert to paper charts, or a world atlas. So let’s face it the whole thing is a load of bollocks. You only need a sextant and some tables or a special calculator and some paper charts and you can get virtually anywhere on the planet. And some of us have had to so it.


A couple of days ago, during the on line discussion about the loss of the El Faro on gCaptain someone mentioned a life capsule. Others thought that he had been describing a Whittaker capsule, but that was not it. He was actually describing an Ovatek liferaft. I had never heard of one, but it was easy to find them on the internet and it is a rigid capsule for four or seven people which is  intended to be boarded before your ship sinks and in which you wait it out, until it floats free, or if the ship does not sink, you get out again. It apparently conforms to the rules for liferafts and so meets SOLAS requirements. Actually it does not seem like a bad idea although there are no seats as far as I can tell, or any form of actual or temporary seating, so surely it would shake the occupants about like beans in a  jar if they evacuated in one in a rough sea. As far as I can tell the craft, if we can call them that, do not have any air bottles and so it  would be necessary to open the air vent once inside. The craft would also not suit anyone who were a bit claustrophobic since the seven person raft is only 2.8 metres long, 1.3 metres wide and 1.2 metres high. Imagine seven of you in a sort of a tube just over a metre high. The manufacturers have also not told us the dimensions of the entry hatch, which might be a challenge for the larger person as far as I can see, nor have they told us what they cost. The product has existed since 1995 and are advertised on the website as being a safe heaven. They probably mean haven – but even so…


An article in this month’s “Seaways” the journal of the Nautical Institute got me thinking, well, the article was by Dr Nippin Anand, who writes a lot about safety and what’s wrong with the conventional approach, and what he has to say is worth noting. This time he was talking about PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and whether it is a good idea. When accidents have occurred the first thing the investigators think of is whether the PPE was being worn, or worn correctly; there is little consideration he suggests as to whether it was really necessary, whether it was the best means of providing protection or even if it was any good.

The first thing I thought of when I read the article was the video produced by Shell about the Prelude, that floating gas production thing; if you click on any one of them you see guys weighed down by PPE, including the hats, the day-glow waistcoats, safety glasses and those hook things for attaching themselves at height and of course somewhere about their person they will have a radio. Now, I’m not saying that these things are not necessary, but there is a chance that they are not all needed at once, and it may be that some of the items are included on the basis of a “maybe” rather than anything else.

And in the middle of his quite long article there are some words which I’m going to start using together with “confirmation bias” which appeared some time ago and which is the probability that things are going to turn out, or have turned out just as you think they are going to or just as you thought they would. The new words are “a binary choice” the yes or no, the good or bad. Whether to wear PPE or not is usually a binary choice. Hence if you go outside from an area which is considered to be “safe” you have to wear the stuff. But his suggestion is that it should not  be so. You should choose your PPE depending on whether you are actually likely to need it. A choice left to the wearer. Hence if you go out on the deck of a supply ship alongside an oil rig the chances are you should be wearing a hard hat and steel toe-capped boots. I have seen some-one’s life saved by a hard hat, and maybe you should always be wearing the boots when you go onto the main deck of a supply vessel. I remember once when I was mate of an anchor-handler I wandered out of deck wearing trainers one quiet evening when the ship was lying alongside. Nothing was happening, but we had recently been carrying some sort of heavy lift which had been secured to the deck by bits of angle iron welded to the lift, and to the deck – a frequently used technique for those outside this industry. So I was picking up the bits of angle iron and throwing them off the deck into the walkway beyond the crash barrier, but I threw one bit short and it bounced back and landed end first on the big toe of my left foot. It took years for the toe to return to its normal colour. Okay, the boots then, but I certainly did not need the hard hat or the safety glasses.

The people telling you to wear the PPE would say that it will always be safer to wear the stuff, but this is not always so. The wearing of safety glasses might be a case in point. If you already wear glasses it is not much of a stretch really, because you will probably have had some safety glasses provided which are made up to your prescription, but if you are not a wearer of glasses, you could have your vision impaired in the wrong circumstances, and this might put you more at risk of injury than of damage to your sight.

Dr Anand goes on a bit about how it is the ratings on board ship who are more likely to be censured for not wearing PPE than officers, which is interesting. I know more about oil rigs in the matter of safety than ships, and I could probably say that everyone who ventures out onto the deck of an oil rig will be fully booted and spurred with full PPE – whether they need it or not. Indeed I have lobbied for years for the people in the pilot house of a semi-submersible be allowed to step outside onto the deck during rig shifts, in order to check on the weather. My contention has been that no-one really has much idea about the actual weather conditions because they don’t leave shelter. The ships have fully enclosed bridges, and the rigs don’t let people go outside without full PPE – that is boiler suit, hard hat safety glasses and steel toe capped boots. Hence no-ne goes outside. This can lead to decision making based on some sort of guesswork. I don’t care what anyone says, reading a weather gauge is not as good as feeling the wind in your face and the rain in your hair as an indication as to whether you should keep on doing what you are doing with a few ships and a number of anchors.

And if we move on to the ultimate PPE situation – in my view – that required for travelling by helicopter in the North Sea you find that the traveller has to don a one piece immersion suit which has over the years been developed into something Houdini could probably not be able to escape from without help, and over this an inflatable lifejacket has to be put on which again has been developed over time to become a garment which requires not only a waist strap but also a second one passing between the legs, and then for certain offshore installations an additional location device is also worn which is like  brick dangling down your front. In the helicopter the traveller has to secure a four point harness similar to that used by racing drivers. And why is all this – its because the helicopters have a tendency to fall into the sea. As Dr Anand so rightly says, sometimes the wearing of PPE may not be the best plan, it would be an idea to go further back – make helicopters more reliable. Some years ago a judge said that if civilian passengers had to put on the same stuff as offshore travellers they’d never go, and I must say I’ve thought twice about it. And just an observation, I have also travelled by helicopter to an installation off the coast of Africa, and also by helicopter in the Arabian Gulf, neither area requiring any sort of PPE whatsoever, but the helicopters operating there are no more reliable. It’s quite difficult to get one’s head around that.

And finally a bit of an anecdote about boots. People on oil rigs, and now many industries use what we used to know as “rig boots” there are boots which are about calf length into which one can slide the foot, hence they do not require any sort of fastening. They seemed fine, but then someone found fault with them, and so in the North Sea they were replaced with lace-up boots. I blame BP for this but I could be wrong, and the joke is that because no one can be bothered to do up laces the boots now have a zip up the side.


During the festive season I usually look back at some point on some of the Christmases I spent at sea, or in port. One of my more interesting experiences was at Christmas one year when my ship was in Peterhead during the time of the renewal of the ship’s radio licence. On twenty-third December I had allowed the Second Engineer to get in his car and drive home to Falkirk for a bit of time with his family, on the provision that I had a means of recalling him if necessary. It was not that far away. So come Christmas Eve the radio surveyor came on board to renew the Safety Radio Certificate, and mysteriously the lifeboat radio was missing. It’s one of those things that are stowed away somewhere and never seen until it comes to the safety radio inspection, or you need to get into the lifeboats. What to do? Well, as it happened there was another of the company ships in drydock in Grangemouth and so I telephoned the Second Engineer and asked him to pick up its radio on the way back to the ship on Christmas afternoon. And I arranged for an assignment with the radio surveyor, who lived in Stonehaven and he was good enough to take some time away from his loved ones and test the lifeboat radio on his front lawn in the middle of the afternoon, and therefore to provide us with a new Safety Radio Cert. So we had a merry Christmas, and it’s my hope that you have had one this year.

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